FIELD-NOTES FROM BASTAR
Sometimes, you do not understand all the dimensions of a story unless you reach the place where the story resides. All the more so when you are travelling to the so-called Naxal heartlands of Chhattisgarh, chasing a story of Community Forest Rights.
All along, the cab-driver incessantly regales you with seemingly innocent quips about how the ‘naxals’ recently abducted a foreign journalist and kept his camera as a keepsake, and how they have ‘training grounds’ which are out of bound to even the locals – and all that.
Heck, you can’t even tell him that his exuberance isn’t really boosting the morale of your team – since you never know; he is, of course, a local.
Here we were, a team of three onboard a hatchback, approaching Antagarh block of district Kanker in Chhattisgarh. Our target was to shoot a story for OXFAM on leadership, under their EU funded project ‘By the People’. The area is what they officially call ‘influenced’ – so it’s quite common to see BSF patrols and roadblocks scanning cars – but that’s all we faced on the way.
Antagarh is a block strewn with forests and what they call ‘Vangram’ – small tribal hamlets that look like they are stuck in a time-wrap. The tribals here literally worship their forests. They have sacred groves (‘devsthan’ in local lingo) where they go and provide their offerings to the forest deity.
It was in one of these villages where we met Ramkumar Darro, our protagonist and a farmer. He has a birth-defect that renders him incapable of hard-labour, but he has made up for it by studying and leading his people into the direction of acquiring Community Forest Rights.
Ramkumar told us how it all started, “The hills and forests around us have whole lot of iron-ore. The government wanted to mine it, so they started building a railway line from our village. I realized that many in our village do not have any document to prove their land-ownership, so there’s nothing to stop their eviction.”
The tribals in these areas depend on the forests for almost 80% of their livelihood – if not more. But the forest guards and police used to keep a strict eye on them – since getting stuff from forests was considered criminal.
In 2012, an amendment to the Forest Act had ensured that Tribal Communities can claim their rights over their traditional land and other forest resources. Ram Kumar realized the opportunity, and with his friend Rajaram Kureti, and a local NGO Disha – took the initiative to stake claim for Community Forest Rights.
The secretary of Disha, Keshav Suri told us that the process was not all that simple, and these tribal local leaders did need external help of legal experts, “It involved making of settlement-maps, indicating forest land, the forest villages, houses, worship spots, roads – everything was clearly demarcated and authenticated by the gram sabha. Only after that we filled the claims form, and submitted it to the government Forest Rights Committee.”
It was a long wait. Nobody knew what was happening beyond the red-tapes, or whether this assurance of ‘forest-rights’ was merely a hollow pipe-dream.
Both Ramkumar, Rajaram and other such activist-leaders faced ridicule, and started thinking that all their efforts were perhaps in vain, and the powers they are standing against might just be too gigantic. Perhaps this Goliath was too formidable for David.
But then, it happened.
Keshav Suri says, “With a change in government, the agenda also changed. Community Forest Rights got prioritized. On 27 September, 2019, in a ceremony held at Kanker, the villagers of 20 claim villages were called and handed over the claim certificates. That was 18500 hectares of land – 45,000 acres.”
That’s huge; and assuring for the locals that there’s still some hope left for them. They now collect resources from the forests fearlessly.
We felt happiness oozing out in the confident statements of Ram Kumar, when he said, “Earlier, the forest guards hassled us, asked us for permits. Now, that’s all in the past. We own the forests now. We can tell that to them, and they can’t refuse.”
While coming back, we couldn’t help but wonder, we were deep inside the red-corridor, as deep as one could go – but where were the Naxals?
Our driver explained with a smile, ‘Sir, they know everything and watch everything. They just do not meddle into things unless it’s against their principles, or might harm them.”
We were muffled; what does he mean? Does he mean that we were watched this whole time? Does he mean that since those red-extremists are also fighting for forest-rights, so they allowed us to tell their story?
Our driver smiled, “Who are the naxals sirji? They might be among the villagers you just met? How can you tell them apart?”
We might never know the story behind the story in this case. But that’s fine; our purpose here was to cover the making of a ‘leader’ who led his community out of a predicament; and Ramkumar Darro was just that, and more.
I think we got what we wanted; and as a bonus, we are taking home wonderful memories of the un-spoilt, rugged terrains of Bastar and glimpses of a lifestyle that thrives in perfect harmony with nature.